Saturday, June 4, 2011

Teaching and assessing high school students

I recently learned something that greatly concerned me about high school education in Queensland. It seems teachers are not allowed to mark exams and assignments in the same manner we do at university. i.e. one gains or loses specific marks for specific actions such as getting the correct answer, including units in the calculation, stating what law or principle or equation one is using, drawing a relevant diagram. Instead, assessment is "criteria based". This means students get credit if teachers can tick off certain broadly based and pre-determined criteria, which seem to rarely get more specific than "using adequate quantitative reasoning". This significantly muddies the waters about right and wrong answers. Marking becomes a much more complicated exercise and more subjective.

I talked two physics and maths teacher about this and they agreed that it is ridiculous, but their hands are tied by the state government education bureaucracy.

I found learning this quite helpful because it may explain why increasingly I encounter students at university who cannot solve problems (especially in exam situations)  in the manner I expect.

To me this underscores the value of the International Baccalaureate as an alternative. There are now high schools in Brisbane (both public and private) which offer this as an option. I like it because it is internationally bench-marked and not subject to local political fashions.


  1. I'd like to add a note in defence of the thinking behind criterion-based assessment.

    My impression from my limited reading (`Understanding by Design' by Wiggins & McTighe, as recommended by Eric Mazur) is that the motivation is to teach high-level skills very similar to some of those you listed:
    `* to solve problems
    * to make orders of magnitude estimates
    * to think and work quantitatively
    * to think critically and evaluate truth claims...' (Mackenzie, 2010 June 16)
    Their argument is that our existing assessment is passing students who don't have these skills, so you need to test against criteria, not just with numerical marks. The issue then boils down to asking if there is any evidence to show that this works better than traditional assessment marking or not.

    Either way I think it's a major step forward to start writing down the important skills as you have; thanks!

  2. Erratum! The correct reference is: McKenzie, 2010,